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Sundance Film Festival Has Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and Flying Whales

New virtual reality narrative experiments help bring interactivity to moviegoers.

by Leif Johnson
Jan 23 2016, 9:53pm

Image: The Leviathan Project

The story of virtual reality at Utah's Sundance Film Festival largely mirrors the recent history of virtual reality itself. There was just a kernel of hype surrounding it a couple of years ago, but now that focus has blossomed into an event with around 30 exhibits that's commanding almost as much attention as the movies that are technically at the festival's heart. Considering that one of the most discussed films this year features Daniel Radcliffe as a farting corpse, that's probably a good thing.

Far greater visual wonders await festival-goers who plop a big virtual reality helmet like the Oculus Rift on their noggins instead. Of particular note this year is the Leviathan Project, which pairs both augmented reality and full-on virtual reality to bring Scott Westerfeld's best-selling Leviathan trilogy of novels to life. It's the product of a three-year collaborative effort between Alex McDowell's 5D Global Studio, USC's World Building Media Lab, Intel, and Unity, and it certainly makes for an interesting setting. Westerfeld's books focus on an alternate reality in which a sordid affair between Charles Darwin and Mary Shelley ultimately leads to proponents of steam-powered engines duking it out with folks who advocate using fabricated animals as weaponry during World War I.

But lead artist Alex McDowell and lead designer Bradley Newman aren't asking visitors to wrap their heads around that; instead, their exhibit invites users to don the Oculus Rift in order to step into the gondola of the Leviathan itself, which just happens to be a part of gigantic flying sperm whale that's dodging clouds on its way from London to Moscow.

That's where things get interesting. With the help of gloves equipped with motion sensors, visitors can interact with the some of the objects in the ship's laboratory, which have green-painted props in the real world that are motion tracked as well. Beyond that, they can hobnob with the Unity-powered crew of scientists, who dish out both commands and helpful advice while visitors create some genetically fabricated creatures of their own.

McDowell, a notable production designer who has films like Fight Club and Minority Report under his belt, sees his work here as an evolution of the traditional narrative space as it makes viewers participants. The narrative presented on the Leviathan's decks leads viewers through experiences McDowell believes traditional movies can't match. Emotionally, we feel the effects of Leviathan's world as though were were a part of it. "No longer are the stories fixed, now they are changed by the action of each participant," McDowell said in a press release.

The Leviathan Project on display at Sundance also features an augmented reality segment, which chiefly focuses on letting visitors use tablet screens to watch as Leviathan undulates through the room's big display and floats over the heads in the crowded room. Still using their tablets, exhibit visitors can use the associated technology to play with the jellyfish-like creatures called Huxleys that Leviathan shoots out from her spouts.

Is it a film? Not really. Nothing that's built for virtual reality will look like movies as we've known them, so it does seem out of place at film festival. But it's not a video game either. Like a lot of virtual reality projects, it's best described with the ambiguous "experience."

It's looks cool, though, and with both films and games, that's always a step in the right direction.